Summary Objective 4

Students will demonstrate the impact of slavery on the development of the French, British and Spanish colonies in North America. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 & 10


What else should my students know?

4.A Enslaved labor was essential to the economy of all colonies in North America. Enslaved people produced the major agricultural and mineral exports of the colonial era, including tobacco, rice, sugar, indigo, silver and gold.

4.B Indigenous people were enslaved throughout all British colonies. The trade in enslaved Indigenous people contributed to transformative conflicts such as the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. After the Yamasee War, several Southern Native nations rose up against British trade practices and nearly destroyed South Carolina. Thereafter, British colonies increasingly turned toward enslaving Africans in much larger numbers. The English in the Middle Colonies and New England were involved in slavery and its related trade, shipping foodstuffs, lumber and other necessities in exchange for rice, sugar and molasses produced by enslaved people. 

4.C Enslavement varied in French colonies. In New France, most enslaved people were Indigenous. In the Caribbean and Louisiana, French colonists developed vast plantations powered by enslaved African and Indigenous laborers. Intense work, poor diet and unrelenting heat made sugar plantations especially deadly. In the 1600s and 1700s, many enslaved people were Indigenous captives whom the French acquired through warfare or trade. But plummeting Indigenous population levels led the French to rely increasingly on the African slave trade.

4.D Enslavement was widespread under Spanish rule in the Americas. Colonists relied upon labor by enslaved Indigenous and African people forced to mine for gold and silver, grow crops and perform domestic labor. The monarchy’s repeated attempts to constrain or outlaw the enslavement of Indigenous people did not end it. Colonists defied the crown outright or exploited exceptions, including the establishment of the repartimiento system, whereby Indigenous people were legally free but wealthy colonizers still forced them to work. As Europeans sought to profit from enslaved labor, Indigenous peoples increasingly sold people captured during war instead of integrating captives into their communities. Some Native nations exploited colonial loopholes by taking control of the initial capture and sale of newly enslaved Indigenous people.


How can I teach this?

  • The resources of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana offer a valuable perspective on the history of enslavement in the French colonies.
  • In 1537, Spanish colonizers were alerted to the possibility of a plot among enslaved African and Indigenous people. The Viceroy of New Spain wrote to the king to explain the situation and recommend that the number of Africans sent to the colony be reduced. The National Humanities Center provides excerpts from his report.
  • Slavery could be used as a punishment in a “holy war” or a “just war.” These designations came from legal and religious authorities, depending on place and time. If an enemy refused to accept Christ, they could be enslaved. The “Requirement,” a document widely used in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, warned populations that failure to accept Christianity would lead to enslavement. The Spanish used this concept to justify enslaving millions of Indigenous people. The National Humanities Center archives the full text of the 1510 Requerimiento.
  • The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first British North American colonial statute to formally establish the legality of slavery. 
  • The Triangular Trade is one way to discuss Northern colonies’ complicity in slavery and the slave trade. Fish and foodstuffs from Northern colonies were traded to the West Indies to feed the enslaved population. In return, Northern merchants brought home sugar and molasses produced by the enslaved population. That sugar and molasses were distilled into rum in Northern distilleries. Northern enslavers and traders sent some of that rum to West Africa, where it was exchanged for enslaved Africans. Those enslaved Africans were sold to the West Indies and mainland British North America. The Crispus Attucks Museum has a useful graphic depicting the Triangular Trade.
  • When studying the culture of slavery in Catholic colonies, the Code Noir (the set of French laws regulating slavery in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase) is a useful resource. 
  • The British Library collection includes a letter that an English planter in the West Indies wrote in response to the growing abolitionist movement in England. The unnamed planter uses racist arguments to make the case that slavery is beneficial to African people.
  • In a short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi shows how Virginian colonists protected slavery to ensure their wealth. 
  • Episode three of Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast discusses the ways that enslavement was critical for the Northern economy. 
  • The short film The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors illustrates the many ways that enslavement of Indigenous people was critical to the development of all colonial economies throughout the Americas.



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